The NCAA on Thursday said it had reached an eight-year agreement with ESPN worth $115 million annually to televise 40 college sports championships each year, including the marquee Division I women’s basketball tournament that many people within college sports had hoped would be primed for even bigger returns given a wave of recent popularity.
The $920 million deal ended several years of speculation and debate about how the NCAA could capitalize on an influx of fans in women’s sports, including basketball. Powerful teams like South Carolina and UConn and star players like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Sabrina Ionescu have created higher expectations for a sport that has earned much less money than men’s college basketball and college football, counterparts that have received far higher investments from universities and media companies for nearly a century.
The NCAA’s current contract with ESPN, which was extended in 2011 and runs through the end of this season, brings in $34 million per year and includes 29 championships. A report in 2021, commissioned because of complaints about glaring differences between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, suggested that the women’s tournament could earn at least $81 million in the first year of a new deal — if it were sold on its own and not as part of a package deal — although that estimate was met with some skepticism by industry experts for its ambitions.
Ultimately, the NCAA and ESPN agreed to keep the bundle and valued the women’s basketball tournament at about $65 million per year under its portion of the agreement.
NCAA president Charlie Baker acknowledged in an interview that selling women’s basketball on its own was not viable given the realities of the market.
“We said from the beginning that we wanted the best deal that we could get for all of our championships,” Baker told The Athletic. “There was a lot of informal conversation that took place with many other potential participants in this negotiation, but the one who constantly engaged and the one I would argue was the most enthusiastic in a significant way throughout the course of this was ESPN.
“The way they handled the negotiations demonstrated that this was really important to them, that it continued to be part of their portfolio. They will be a terrific partner, I think, going forward here.”
The new contract does not include the highly lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament; Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery pay nearly $900 million per year to broadcast that event on CBS and the Turner cable networks in a long-term deal that runs through 2032. The new NCAA-ESPN contract also expires in 2032, which will give the NCAA more flexibility in its next media rights negotiations, Baker said. (The NCAA does not control the rights to Football Bowl Subdivision postseason games, and the College Football Playoff handles its own negotiations and controls its own revenue.)
The new contract is set to begin Sept. 1 and includes guarantees that the national championship games in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics will be broadcast on ABC each year.
What does the NCAA’s new media rights agreement mean for women’s college basketball?
A number of prominent women’s basketball coaches, including South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, had advocated for the NCAA to spin off the championship into a stand-alone media deal, like the arrangement used for the men’s basketball tournament.
Last season, the women’s title game aired for the first time on ABC and drew 9.9 million viewers — and featured the most people to ever watch a men’s or women’s college event on ESPN+. Overall viewership growth was up 55 percent, and the sport’s stars — players and coaches — became household names. Many in and around women’s basketball expected this deal to reflect the recent significant growth in the sport by pulling it out of a package it shares with dozens of other sports.
“It should happen,” Staley said in March. “We’re at that place where we’re in high demand. I do believe women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-producing sport that could do, to a certain extent, what men’s basketball has done for all those other sports, all those other Olympic sports and women’s basketball.
“It’s slowly building up to that because there’s proof in the numbers.”
The NCAA’s media advisers at Endeavor’s WME and IMG Sports said their financial modeling valued the women’s basketball tournament at $65 million annually, which makes up more than half of the value of the new $115 million contract. Hillary Mandel, EVP and head of Americas for media at IMG, and Karen Brodkin, EVP and co-head of WME Sports, said they began the process of preparing for the NCAA’s negotiations by assessing the opportunities in the market both for individual sports and for the 40-sport bundle.
“In the end, you’ve got to find the deal that matches your goals and objectives and not unbundle because everybody’s saying to you: ‘Unbundle! Unbundle! Hey, it’s the cool thing to do!’” Mandel said. “Let’s just not get lost in the sauce of that conversation.”
The two sides began engaging in serious negotiations in late October, Brodkin said, and completed the deal during ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window, meaning the NCAA did not take its championship bundle to the open market for a potential bidding war. She said ESPN’s financial investment, its existing infrastructure and the “overwhelming amount of production” the network has committed to on both linear and streaming platforms made it the best opportunity for the NCAA. More than 2,300 hours of championships will air on ESPN’s linear and digital platforms annually as part of the contract, and 10 sports will have their selection shows broadcast.
“Retaining exclusivity was very important to us in a world of fragmentation,” ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said.
Thursday’s news serves as yet another inflection point for women’s college basketball — though reactions are expected to be mixed. The tournament itself is valued at more than 10 times its previous valuation of $6 million to $7 million annually under the current contract, but its singular value was not fully tested. Still, the increased revenue and new $65 million valuation for the women’s basketball tournament set the stage for future change for the sport.
The NCAA will explore the idea of rewarding women’s basketball teams’ NCAA Tournament success with revenue distribution units, Baker said, a system used on the men’s side of the sport to reward conferences and universities for performing in the tournament. The Division I board of directors finance committee began discussions on that front in 2023 and will talk with its member universities more this year, the NCAA said.
“The tournament has grown dramatically because of the hard work of so many student-athletes and coaches and schools and folks at the NCAA and ESPN,” Baker said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to figure out a way to make it happen.”
Currently, only men’s NCAA Tournament teams earn units by advancing in the bracket. Each team that earns a bid to the tournament earns a unit for its conference, with more units up for grabs based on wins in the tournament. Total revenue earned from tournament units goes to the conference of the team that earned it and is distributed to universities over a six-year period, and it comes from a portion of the revenue that the tournament itself brings in annually. The women’s tournament has, in the past, not brought in enough revenue to justify setting aside money for a unit system.
Women’s college basketball reached a big moment during the 2021 NCAA Tournament when the inequities in treatment between the men and women became obvious to the public. Though those within the game had known for years that the NCAA had favored men’s basketball to the detriment of other sports, a TikTok post from then-Oregon center Sedona Prince prompted far more widespread outrage and momentum for change.
Prince’s tweet racked up 12.3 million views as the college star pointed out basic inequities, highlighting key differences between the women’s tournament and men’s in food provided to teams, access to weight rooms and even swag bags. Players and coaches were also vocal about other areas that showed how the athletes were treated differently, such as having 68 teams in the men’s bracket versus 64 in the women’s and the usage of “March Madness” branding only for the men’s tournament.
Within one week of Prince’s tweet, the NCAA had hired the law firm Kaplan, Hecker & Fink LLP to conduct an independent equity review of the NCAA. In August 2021, the firm released its 117-page review — known colloquially as the “Kaplan report” — of the NCAA’s gender equity within basketball championships. The Kaplan report recommended that the NCAA spin off the women’s basketball tournament separately from other sports, suggesting a higher valuation, and it said the NCAA had created differences in the tournaments by having different people working to organize them without properly conferring about whether they were comparable.
Baker and the NCAA’s media rights advisers said they evaluated all possible options, including going to the open market and trying to sell a stand-alone women’s basketball tournament package, but they opted against it.
“If the market had demonstrated to us and to Endeavor that it would be worth our while to do that, we absolutely would have gone that way,” Baker said.
Multiple industry experts told The Athletic over the past year that it would make the most sense for the NCAA to keep the women’s tournament with ESPN, a partner that broadcasts so much of the sport’s regular season that would be incentivized to cover the sport in the lead-up to the marquee postseason event. Brodkin said there would be no option better than one offering to triple their current deal in addition to increasing the investment in production, marketing and storytelling while putting more games on ABC.
“Unbundling for unbundling’s sake — you’d have to go through the exercise of who and how is someone going to do more than that?” Brodkin said.
Last season, the women’s title game aired on ABC for the first time, and ESPN announced in October that it would be broadcast on ABC again this season — though not in the prime-time slot. There could be more women’s sporting events put on ABC or in better windows moving forward as both sides agreed to meet regularly to consider changes to maximize visibility for events that demand it.
NCAA secured media rights deal for women’s college basketball … but now the real work begins
(Top photo: C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)